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Yearning to Learn

Tossing bags over their shoulders, gathering their books and grabbing a cup of coffee as they dash off to class--typical Duke students, right?

Not if you're at the Bishop's House on East Campus, home of Duke's Office of Continuing Education, which serves the local community by providing opportunities for learning outside of the typical college setting.

Founded in 1969, the program was originally created with assistance from the Woman's College alumni association to help women complete their undergraduate degrees. Over the years the office has expanded to include youth programs, short courses for adults of all ages, certificate programs and an institute for learning in retirement.

"Teachers love teaching here because it's all the good things about teaching and none of the bad," said Sara Craven, director for the Duke Institute of Learning in Retirement. "It's all pluses. This is a wonderful program because people are here for the love of learning."

Continuing education students can receive academic credit on a non-degree basis or can enroll in a variety of non-credit programs, without grades or exams. "We don't have the pressure of grades and we're more flexible," said Helen Swinford, a DILR member. "Sometimes I think we get more out of it than we did in college."

The students' life experience adds a level of depth to discussions that is usually not found in the undergraduate setting. "Our students here are well educated, well-traveled and cultured, and they bring a lot to the classroom," Craven said.

Students agree, explaining that they draw on prior knowledge to open the door for new learning. "I think because most of us have accomplished what we thought we would accomplish in life and we are interested in learning simply to learn and we feel pretty confident in what we do know, [we are open to learning more]," explained George Kingman, a former administrator at the National Institute of Environmental Health Services who both teaches and takes classes through continuing education.

The vast majority of the some 15,000 individuals enrolled in the continuing education program participate in the non-credit courses.

"The quality of classroom participation is pretty stunning because they want the information," said Don Wells, director of the certificate program in non-profit management, which awarded about 5200 certificates last year.

Dr. Thomas Hammond, professor of French and chair of the department of modern foreign languages at North Carolina Central University, is enrolled in the ESL certificate program and intends to use his training to teach English as a foreign language in the Dominican Republic. "You're never too old to learn," he said. "And for me, it doesn't hurt to be in the position of my students once in a while."

The multiple certificate programs offered by the continuing education office provide adults the opportunity to enhance their degrees, work toward a promotion or become eligible for a pay raise. While the Duke programs do not test the students, they prepare them to pass standard national exams.

But most of the students in the program do not participate out of necessity. "Mainly, to my delight, when people get in the program, they cease pursuing the certificate for the certificate's sake and they pursue the knowledge," Wells said. He added that out of the non-profit management program, 83% of students continue to take courses even after they have completed their certificate program.

"I love to go to school and I don't want to stop," said Swinford, a former public school teacher. "When I was working I'd take evening classes, and now I have more time on my hands [to take classes]."

An additional asset to the certificate programs is that they are taught by practicing professionals, which places an emphasis on how to actually do the work, as opposed to simply teaching about it.

"Most of our teachers are practitioners, that causes them to be very unpompous and very real," Wells said. "The students feel they are getting information from someone who has done it themselves."

Through the Office of Continuing Education, this community of learners extends to young adults as well. The office has a variety of summer "academic enrichment programs" and this past summer served 673 children from all over the country.

"Sometimes I feel like what I do is quite different [from the rest of the continuing education program], but at the same time the goal is learning across a lifetime," said Kim Price, director of youth programs.

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